In The News › All Over the Map

Jan 27, 2006

Source: Times-Picayune

All Over the Map

ALL OVER THE MAP
Friday, January 27, 2006
By Gordon Russell
Staff writer

Depending on your assessor, a report by the Bureau of Governmental Research reveals
New Orleans’ seven-district system has produced vastly different property valuations in
areas that didn’t flood.

Thanks to Hurricane Katrina, most New Orleanians are conversant with the laws of hydrology:
Water breaks through levees and inundates the lowest points first, working its way ever higher.
But the city’s seven assessors seem to have their own ideas about how water flows. In their
analysis, water respects political boundaries as well as the traditional but invisible lines that
divide neighborhoods.

How else to explain the recently revised 2006 property assessments?

A study by the watchdog Bureau of Governmental Research released Thursday concludes that
the different assessors, who were directed to reappraise property to reflect Katrina’s flood
damage, did so in wildly different ways. The report, which examined only unflooded areas,
concludes that the haphazard pattern of appraisal in the city, already well-documented, has only
gotten worse since the storm.

It’s likely to provide another powerful argument for overhauling the city’s appraisal structure —
unique in the United States — in which seven independently elected assessors set values in their
own districts in often starkly different ways.

In general, the report says, residents of unflooded areas of the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th districts
received no reductions in their 2005 assessments, while their neighbors in dry areas of the 3rd —
particularly the Faubourg Marigny and the Bywater — and 6th and 7th districts saw their
assessments drop as much as 50 percent.

The contrast, in some areas, is inexplicable and striking. For example, 4th District Assessor
Betty Jefferson did not change the valuation of many unflooded homes on Carondelet Street. But
just a few blocks uptown, 6th District Assessor Albert Coman cut in half the valuation of similarly
dry Carondelet homes.

Further uptown in the Riverbend area, a similar disparity was evident along Lowerline Street,
which divides the 6th and 7th districts, the study found. On the uptown side of the street, which
falls within the preview of 7th District Assessor Henry Heaton, most homeowners’ assessments
dropped by 25 percent, while those of their neighbors across the street in Jefferson’s district fell
only 15 percent.

Intradistrict disparities

The capriciousness within the same district is often remarkable as well. Across Coman’s district,
most homeowners on the river side of St. Charles Avenue saw their assessments marked down
by 15 percent, while their neighbors just across the neutral ground got a 50 percent reduction.
The homes on both sides of the oak-lined avenue remained dry after the storm.

“Some New Orleans neighborhoods have been twice blessed,” the report concludes. “First, they
escaped the widespread flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina. Now, the assessments on
improvements in those neighborhoods have been reduced across the board, by significant
amounts, irrespective of whether a property suffered hurricane-related damage.”

Coman, Heaton and Jefferson did not return phone calls Thursday.

The study, available at www.bgr.org, comes as Mayor Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back
Commission is recommending that the Legislature replace the city’s seven assessors with one
appointed professional, and Gov. Kathleen Blanco has said she would support such a change.
The BGR has long argued that there should be only one assessor.

Gary Solomon, who led the government effectiveness committee of Nagin’s rebuilding
commission, said the report further underscores the need to push through his committee’s
recommendation.

“This is a real live example of what we’re talking about,” Solomon said.

Assessor: ‘Blend the lines’

First District Assessor Darren Mire, who sets valuations for the Central Business District, the
Lower Garden District and parts of Mid-City, acknowledged that the differences between districts
noted by the BGR are troubling. Mire did not reduce the values of unflooded properties in his
area unless they had wind damage that could be documented by the owner, he said. The BGR
report backed him up.

“Obviously there was no blending of (district) boundaries, and that’s obviously not good,” Mire
said. “You have to blend the lines.”

Mire said he consulted with neighboring assessors — 2nd District Assessor Claude Mauberret
and Jefferson of the 4th District — to ensure there were no disparities based on district lines. But
there was no discussion among the assessors as a group about whether the values of
nonflooded homes should be marked down based upon a perception of post-Katrina market
value, he said.

“I’d have to find out what methodology was used” by the assessors who did that, Mire said.

Mire said consolidating the seven offices likely would increase uniformity among assessments,
but that he doesn’t believe doing so would be the panacea some have suggested.

Short time frame cited

Mauberret, who like Mire was spared the harshest criticism in the report, noted that assessors
had a very short time frame during which to reappraise property in their districts. The revised
rolls were completed in late December, less than four months after the storm.

“We had to do the best we could,” Mauberret said. The other assessors “know their districts a lot
better than I do.”

Asked whether it was fair that unflooded property owners in his district got no relief, while others
farther uptown received major cuts, Mauberret said he wasn’t in a position to judge.

“I’m not familiar with the sales in those areas,” he said. “The storm could have adversely affected
prices. Just because it didn’t flood doesn’t mean the sales didn’t go down 15 percent. Maybe
that’s the way they looked at it.”

But sale prices in the area, one of the few to escape Katrina’s devastation, seemed to have gone
up instead. Real-estate analyst Wade Ragas recently told The Times-Picayune that although
statistics on housing sales are spotty, a review of 70 recent sales suggests housing prices
Uptown are 10 percent above pre-Katrina values. The BGR report likewise rejected the idea that
the market for dry property Uptown might have been affected differently than the market for
undamaged homes in the Garden District, located in a separate assessment area.

“While reasonable minds can differ as to the current fair market value of properties, it is clear that
general market changes caused by Hurricane Katrina would impact the value of similarly situated
properties in the same degree,” the report says. “It is simply not possible that undamaged
property on one side of a street in an unflooded, intact neighborhood has given up 50 percent or
15 percent of its value, while undamaged property on the other side has held steady.”

The Times-Picayune also tried to reach 3rd District Assessor Erroll Williams and 5th District
Assessor Tom Arnold, but neither returned phone calls Thursday.

Salaries at issue

Each assessor earns in the range of $90,000 annually, an amount many good-government
groups, including the BGR, have said puts an untenable burden on tax coffers, given City Hall’s
fiscal woes.

The BGR beat the one-assessor drum again in its report.

“For assessors to treat similarly situated properties differently in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is
a move in the wrong direction,” the report says. “It’s also a good argument for one professional
assessor in Orleans Parish.”

The post-Katrina reassessments come as all seven assessors are up for re-election this year.
Balloting is scheduled for April 22.

Coman, who gave some of the most generous breaks, was appointed to the job and is one of
only two assessors who is not a longtime incumbent. He was named to the post by his six
colleagues last year after his mother, Janyce Degan, stepped down, giving Coman the chance to
run as an incumbent. Degan herself had taken the post in a similar fashion after her thenhusband,
George Degan, stepped down in 1981. She was re-elected six times after that.

BGR warned that the reassessment practices described in its report are arbitrary and could
further cripple the city’s finances and put an undue burden on the few remaining taxpayers.

Overall, the assessors have reduced property values in the city by about 54 percent, only part of
which was warranted, the report said.

As a result of that drop, the report says, the millage levied by the Board of Liquidation, City Debt
— which pays down the city’s bonds — could rise by anywhere from 8 to 35 mills, resulting in
steep increases for some taxpayers who did not receive assessment breaks.

Troubling inconsistencies

Elizabeth Guglielmo, chairwoman of the Louisiana Tax Commission, which oversees the
assessors, said the BGR report, which she reviewed Thursday, worries her. Last year Guglielmo
led a move to require a reappraisal of all residential property in New Orleans after reports in The
Times-Picayune illustrated wide disparities in assessment practices across the city.

The newspaper found that, on average, homes in 2003 were assessed for 41 percent less than
their market value. A subsequent study by the Tax Commission had similar findings.

“The Tax Commission is always concerned when there are reports that property taxes are not
being assessed in a fair, accurate and uniform manner,” Guglielmo said. “Fair, equitable and
accurate assessments are critical to the rebuilding of New Orleans.”

Guglielmo noted that the reappraisal just completed by New Orleans’ assessors was required
under state legislation passed last fall, directing assessors in storm-ravaged areas to reappraise
property “damaged or destroyed” by hurricanes or floods.

Why some city assessors chose to devalue homes that did not sustain such damage was
unclear.

“At this time, the Tax Commission does not know what criteria was used by assessors in New
Orleans to reassess property,” she said.

Guglielmo said the Tax Commission plans to conduct surveys in the most devastated parishes,
including Orleans, to determine whether the reassessment reflecting storm damage had been
properly carried out. The study, conceived before the release of the BGR report, will involve
looking at a random sampling of property in each parish.

The post-storm reassessment is unrelated to a revaluation the Tax Commission directed the
New Orleans assessors to conduct last year. That reassessment, which is supposed to include
all residential property in the city, is due in August. Citing storm-related delays, the Orleans
assessors have asked for more time, and Guglielmo said the Tax Commission will take up their
request at a future meeting.
. . . . . . .
Gordon Russell can be reached at grussell@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3347.

Jan 27, 2006

Source: Times-Picayune

Fair Use Notice

This site occasionally reprints copyrighted material, the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We make such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of issues and to highlight the accomplishments of our affiliates. We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is available without profit. For more information go to: US CODE: Title 17,107. Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.